Tag: innovation

psychologysystems thinking

Smart goals or better systems?

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If you’re working toward some sort of collective goals — as an organization, network or even as an individual — you’ve most likely been asked to use SMART goal setting to frame your task. While SMART is a popular tool for management consultants and scholars, does it make sense when you’re looking to make inroads on complex, unique or highly volatile problems or is the answer in the systems we create to advance goals in the first place?  

Goal setting is nearly everywhere.

Globally we had the UN-backed Millennium Development Goals and now have the Sustainable Development Goals and a look at the missions and visions of most corporations, non-profits, government departments and universities and you will see language that is framed in terms of goals, either explicitly or implicitly.

A goal for this purposes is:

goal |ɡōl| noun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result the destination of a journey

Goal setting is the process of determining what it is that you seek to achieve and usually combined with mapping some form of strategy to achieve the goal. Goals can be challenging on their own when a single person is determining what it is that they want, need or feel compelled to do, even more so when aggregated to the level of the organization or a network.

How do you keep people focused on the same thing?

A look at the literature finds a visible presence of one approach: setting SMART goals. SMART goals reflect an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely in some examples). The origin of SMART has been traced back to an article in the 1981 issue of the AMA’s journal Management Review by George Doran (PDF). In that piece, Doran comments how unpleasant it is to set objectives and that this is one of the reasons organizations resist it. Yet, in an age where accountability is held in high regard the role of the goal is not only strategic, but operationally critical to attracting and maintaining resources.

SMART goals are part of a larger process called performance management, which is a means by enhancing collective focus and alignment of individuals within an organization . Dartmouth College has a clearly articulated explanation of how goals are framed within the context of performance management:

” Performance goals enable employees to plan and organize their work in accordance with achieving predetermined results or outcomes. By setting and completing effective performance goals, employees are better able to:

  • Develop job knowledge and skills that help them thrive in their work, take on additional responsibilities, or pursue their career aspirations;
  • Support or advance the organization’s vision, mission, values, principles, strategies, and goals;
  • Collaborate with their colleagues with greater transparency and mutual understanding;
  • Plan and implement successful projects and initiatives; and
  • Remain resilient when roadblocks arise and learn from these setbacks.”

Heading somewhere, destination unknown

Evaluation professionals and managers alike love SMART goals and performance measurement. What’s not to like about something that specifically outlines what is to be done in detail, the date its required by, and in a manner that is achievable? It’s like checking off all the boxes in your management performance chart all at once! Alas, the problems with this approach are many.

Specific is pretty safe, so we won’t touch that. It’s good to know what you’re trying to achieve.

But what about measurable? This is what evaluators love, but what does it mean in practice? Metrics and measures reflect a certain type of evaluative approach and require the kind of questions, data collection tools and data to work effectively. If the problem being addressed isn’t something that lends itself to quantification using measures or data that can easily define a part of an issue, then measurement becomes inconclusive at best, useless at worst.

What if you don’t know what is achievable? This might be because you’ve never tried something before or maybe the problem set has never existed before now.

How do you know what realistic is? This is tricky because, as George Bernard Shaw wrote in Man and Superman:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

This issue of reasonableness is an important one because innovation, adaptation and discovery are not able reason, but aspiration and hope. Were it for reasonableness, we might have never achieved much of what we’ve set out to accomplish in terms of being innovative, adaptive or creative.

Reasonableness is also the most dangerous for those seeking to make real change and do true innovation. Innovation is not often reasonable, nor are the asks ‘reasonable.’ Most social transformations were not because of reasonable. Women’s rights to vote  or The rights of African Americans to be recognized and treated as human beings in the United States are but two examples from the 20th century that are able lack of ‘reasonableness’.

Lastly, what if you have no idea what the timeline for success is? If you’ve not tackled this before, are working on a dynamic problem, or have uncertain or unstable resources it might be impossible to say how long something will take to solve.

Rethinking goals and their evaluation

One of the better discussions on goals, goal setting and the hard truths associated with what it means to pursue a goal is from James Clear, who draws on some of the research on strategy and decision making to build his list of recommendations. Clear’s summary pulls together a variety of findings that show how individuals construct goals and seek to achieve them and the results suggest that the problem is less about the strategy used to reach a goal, but more on the goals themselves.

What is most relevant for organizations is the concept of ‘rudders and oars‘, which is about creating systems and processes for action and less on the goal itself. In complex systems, our ability to exercise control is highly variable and constrained and goals provide an illusory sense that we have control. So either we fail to achieve our goals or we set goals that we can achieve, which may not be the most important thing we aim for. We essentially rig our system to achieve something that might be achievable, but utterly not important.

Drawing on this work, we are left to re-think goals and commit to the following:

  1. Commit to a process, not a goal
  2. Release the need for immediate results
  3. Build feedback loops
  4. Build better systems, not better goals

To realize this requires an adaptive approach to strategy and evaluation where the two go hand-in-hand and are used systemically. It means pushing aside and rejecting more traditional performance measurement models for individuals and organizations and developing more fine-tuned, custom evaluative approaches that link data to decisions and decisions to actions in an ongoing manner.

It means thinking in systems, about systems and designing for ways to do both on an ongoing, not episodic manner.

The irony is, by minimizing or rejecting the use of goals, you might better achieve a goal of a more impactful, innovative, responsive and creative organization with a real mission for positive change.

 

 

Image credit: Author

 

innovationpsychologysystems thinking

Decoupling creators from their creations

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The world is transformed by creators — the artists, the innovators, the leaders — and their creations are what propel change and stand in the way of it. Change can be hard and its made all the more so when we fail to decouple the creator from the created, inviting resistance rather than enticing better creations. 

If you want to find the hotspot for action or inaction in a human system, look at what is made in that system. Human beings defend, promote and attend to what they made more than anything. Just watch.

Children will rush to show you what they made: a sandcastle, a picture, a sculpture, a…whatever it is they are handing you. Adults don’t grow out of that: we are just big kids. Adults are just more subtle in how we promote and share what we do, but we still place an enormous amount of psychological energy on our creations. Sometimes its our kids, our spouses (which is a relationship we created), our ideas, our way of life, our programs, policies or businesses. Even something like a consumer purchase is, in some ways, a reflection of us in that we are making an identity or statement with it.

Social media can feel like one big echo-chamber sometimes, but it’s that way because we often are so busy sharing our opinions that we’re not listening — focusing on what we made, not what others made. Social media can be so harsh because when we attack ideas — our 140 character creations sometimes — we feel as if we are being attacked. This is one of the reasons we are having such traumatized, distorted discourse in the public domain.

Creations vs creators

The problem with any type of change is that we often end up challenging both the creator and the creation at the same time. It’s saying that the creation needs to change and that can hurt the creator, even if done unintentionally.

The interest in failure in recent years is something I’ve been critical of, but a positive feature of it is that people are now talking more openly about what it means to not succeed and that is healthy. There are lots of flaws in the failure talk out there, mostly notably because it fails (no pun — even a bad one, intended… but let’s go with it) to decouple the creator from the creation.  In many respects, creators and their creations are intimately tied together as one is the raw material and vehicle for the other.

But when we need to apologize for, make amends because, or defend our creations constantly we are using a lot of energy. In organizational environments there is an inordinate amount of time strategizing, evaluating and re-visiting innovation initiatives, but the simple truth is that — as we will see below — it doesn’t make a lick of difference because we are confusing the creators with the creations and the systems in which they are creating.

Sometimes we need to view the creator and creation separately and that is all a matter of trust – and reality.

 

A matter of trust, a matter of reality

If you are part of a team that has been tasked with addressing an issue and given a mandate to find and possibly create a solution, why should it matter what you produce? That seems like an odd question or statement.

At first it seems obvious: for accountability, right?

But consider this a little further.

If a team has been given a charge, it presumably is the best group that is available given the time and resources available. Maybe there are others more suited or talented to the job, perhaps there is a world expert out there who could help, but because of time, money, logistics or some combination of reasons in a given situation that isn’t possible. We are now dealing with what is, not what we wish to be. This is sometimes called the real world. 

If that team does not have the skills or talent to do it, why is it tasked with the problem? If those talents and skills are unknown and there is no time, energy or commitment  — or means — to assess that in practice then you are in a truly innovative space: let’s see what happens.

In this case, accountability is simply a means of exploring how something is made, what is learned along the way, and assessing what kind of products are produced from that, knowing that there is no real way to determine it’s comparative merit, significance or worth — the hallmark tenets of evaluation. It’s experimental and there is no way to fail, except to fail to attend and learn from it.

This is a matter of trust. It’s about trusting that you’re going to do something useful with what you have and that’s all. The right / wrong debate makes no sense because, if you’re dealing with reality as we discussed above there are no other options aside from not doing something. So why does failure have to come into it?

This is about trusting creators to create. It has nothing to do with what they create because, if you’ve selected a group to do something that only they are able to do, for reasons mentioned above, it has nothing to do with their creation.

Failing at innovation

The real failure we speak of might be failing to grasp reality, failing to support creative engagement in the workplace, and failing to truly innovate. These are products of what happens when we task individuals, groups, units or some other entity within our organizations, match them with systems that have no known means forward and provide them with no preparation, tools, or intelligence about the problem to support doing what they are tasked with. The not knowing part of the problem is not uncommon, particularly in innovative spaces. It’s nothing to sneer at, rather something that is a true learning opportunity. But we need to call it as it is, not what we want it or pretend it to be.

My colleague Hallie Preskill from FSG is big on learning and is not averse to rolling her eyes when people speak of it, because it’s often used so flippantly and without thought. True learning means paying attention, giving time and focus to what material — experience, data, reflections, goals and contexts — is available, and in . Learning has a cost and it has many myths attached to it. It’s difficulty is why many simply don’t do it. In truth, many are not as serious about really learning, but talking about learning. This is what Hallie sees a lot.

The material for learning is what these innovators, these creators, are producing so if we are valuing creation and innovation we need to pay attention to this and entice creators to continue to generate more quality ‘content’ for us to learn from and worry less about what these creators produce when we task them with innovation missions that have no chance to ‘succeed’ just as they have no chance to ‘fail’

A poor question leads us to poor answers.

Consider what we ask of our innovators and innovation and you’ll see that, if we want more and better creators and if we want more and better creations we need to see them in a new light and create the culture that sees them both for what they are, not what we want them to be.

Image credit: Author

complexitysocial systems

Time. Care. Attention.

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A read through a typical management or personal improvement feed will reveal near infinite recommendations for steps you can take to improve your organization or self. Three words tend to be absent from this content stream and they are what take seemingly simple recommendations and navigate them through complexity: time, care, and attention.

Embedded within the torrent of content on productivity, innovation and self-development is a sense of urgency reflected in ‘top ten lists’,  ‘how tos’ and ‘hacks’ that promise ways to make your life and the world better, faster; hallmark features of what has become our modern, harried age.  These lists and posts are filled with well-intentioned strategies that are sure to get ‘liked’, ‘shared’ and ‘faved’, but for which there might be scant evidence for their effect.

Have you seen the research on highly productive people and organizations and their approaches, tools and strategies that speak to your specific circumstances? Probably not. The reason? There’s a paucity of research out there that points to specifics, while there is much on more generalized strategies. The problem is that you and I operate in the world specific to us, not generalized to the world. It’s why population health data is useful to understanding how a particular condition or issue manifests across a society, but is relatively poor at predicting individual outcomes.

Whether general or specific, three key qualities appear to be missing from much of the discussion and they might be the reason so little of what is said translates well into what is done: time, care, attention.

Time

When words and concepts like lean startup, rapid cycle prototyping, and quick pivoting dominate discussion of productivity and innovation it is easy to find our focus in speed. Yet, there are so many reasons to consider time and space as much as speed. Making the space to see things in a bigger picture allows us to act on what is important, not just what is urgent. This requires space — literal and figurative — within our everyday practice to do. Time allows us to lower that emotional drive to focus on more things at once, potentially seeing new patterns and different connections than had we rushed headlong into what appeared to be the most obvious issue at first look.

If we are seeking change to last, why would we not design something that takes time to prepare, deliver and sustain? Our desire and impetus to gain speed comes at the cost of longevity in many cases. This isn’t to suggest that a rapid-fire initiative can’t produce long-term results. The space race between the United States and Russia in the 1950’s and 60’s proves the long-term viability of short-term bursts of creative energy, but this might be an exception rather than the rule. Consider the timelessness of many classical architectural designs and how they were build with an idea that they would last, because they were designed without the sense that time was passing quickly. They were built to last.

Care

Care is consideration applied to doing something well. It is tied to a number of other c-words like competence. Those who are applying their skills to an issue require, acquire and develop a level of competence in doing something. Tackling complex social and organizational problems requires a level of competence that comes with time and attention, hence the research that suggests mastery may take as much as 10,000 hours of sustained, careful, deliberative practice to achieve. In an age of speed, this isn’t something that’s easily dealt with. Fast-tracked learning isn’t as possible as we think.

Care might also substitute for another c-word: craft. Craft is about building competence, practicing it, and attending to the materials and products generated through it. It’s not about mass production, but careful production.

Care is the application of focus and another c-word: compassion. Compassion is a response to suffering, which might be your own, that of your organization or community, or something for the world. Compassion is that motivational force aimed at helping alleviate those things that produce suffering and includes empathy, concern, kindness, tolerance, and sensitivity and is the very thing that translates our intentions and desires for change into actions that are likely to be received. We react positively to those who show compassion towards us and has been shown to be a powerful driver for positive change in flourishing organizations (PDF).

And isn’t flourishing what we’re all about? Why would we want anything less?

Attention

The third and related factor to the others is attention. Much has been written here and elsewhere about the role of mindfulness as a means of enhancing focus and focus on the right things: it’s a cornerstone of a socially innovative organization. Mindfulness has benefits of clearing away ‘noise’ and allowing more clear attention toward the data (e.g., experience, emotion, research data) we’re presented with that is the raw material for decision making. It’s an essential element of developmental evaluation and sensemaking.

Taken together, time, care and attention are the elements that not only allow us to see and experience more of our systems, but they allow us to better attend to what is important, not just what is urgent. They are a means to ensuring we do the right things, not the wrong things, righter.

In a world where there is more of almost everything determining what is most important, most relevant and most impactful has never been more important and while there is a push for speed, for ‘more’, there’s — paradoxically — never been a greater need to slow down, reduce and focus.

Thank you, reader, for your time, care and attention. You’ve given some of the most valuable things you have.

Image credit: Author

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Jaded: Whether You Are a Plant or a Stone Makes All the Difference

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An attempt to innovate – do something new to produce value — is always fraught with risk and a high likelihood that things won’t go as planned, which can leave people jaded toward future efforts. Whether that metaphor of jade is one of a rock (static) or a plant (growth) makes all the difference. 

Innovation is hot. Innovation is necessary. Innovation is your competitive advantage. Innovate or die.

You’ve probably heard one or all of these phrases or one of the myriad variants of them out there. Innovation is a hot word. To innovate is to transform new thinking into new value, but it is used euphemistically to represent all kinds of ‘hot’ things without appropriate framing. It’s not just doing something different, it’s about producing something new that improves on the situation at hand, even if the solution might actually be an old idea re-introduced.

A recent article for the online version of Harvard Business Review suggests that many companies are just giving up, ceding the ‘innovation’ space to large firms with a reputation for innovation. Why? One of the reasons cited is that the developing social and technological change has created a situation where “many firms seem to be unable to keep up with the pace at which this development is unfolding.”

The painful experience of failure

Another reason might be the problem of failure. Failure has become another cool word in the language of business and social innovation (even, government) to the point of being fetishized as something noble. The issue with failure is not just accepting that it can happen, but learning from it and acting on that learning. It also means understanding what failure is and whether an outcome is even best described in terms like “success” and “failure” . Too often in innovation, particularly social innovation, we actually don’t know what success looks like so how is it that we can use the term failure so readily?

Failure is a word with enormous negative cultural baggage. Despite all the positive rhetoric of failure, corporations, social enterprises and governments are judged on their ability to deliver what is expected of them. Expectations are really the key here. If you’re a corporation that promises to deliver a certain rate of return on investment over a specific time period, you’re going to be held to task for that. We can speak of failure positively all we’d like, but try explaining the ‘learning’ outcomes to a group of angry shareholders?

Politicians don’t get judged on their ability to manage complexity, they are judged by making and keeping promises — even if those promises are based on (overly) simplistic ways of viewing complex problems. As we entangle ourselves with more complex problems, the promise of a simple solution will be harder to come by. Yet, it’s that hope for the solution that is what ultimately gets us. As I once read in a newsletter advertising an online dating service in a very cheeky manner:

It’s not the rejection that kills you, it’s the hope.

It’s actually quite true. If you don’t expect to succeed, “failure” isn’t really that bad.

Lowered expectations, risk avoidance & path dependencies

When you’re jaded, you tend to lower your expectations. The analogy of online dating above is also an apt descriptor for ways in which lowered expectations changes the very game of innovation in real ways in people’s lives. As divorce rates approach 50%, it is becoming common that many people are starting over sometime in their 30’s and 40’s and trying, once again, to find love. What’s interesting in terms of dating is that, particularly if you’ve been dating a little, you face two big issues: 1) you’re a bit cautious about what you do or say because you know that things might not last and you want to conserve your energy and 2) you’ve become accustomed to the way you do things on your own.

The result might be less adventurousness, more conservative thinking about the choice of partner, a greater willingness to settle for what is, rather than what could be (risk avoidance). An established pattern of living might also predispose you to looking for partners who are a lot like you, which maintains a level of consistency (path dependence). An argument can be made that this is more about knowing yourself and your preferences than being set in your ways, but there is a fine line between that and resistance to change.

This is exactly what we see in organizations around innovation.

They have tried innovation before, it’s failed to deliver what they expected (because they probably set their expectations poorly, not realizing that the outcomes of innovation could be something other than they had designed for), and now don’t want to try. Or rather, they don’t want to try enough. This is why we see so many organizations trumpet themselves as innovative, when what they are really doing is the most basic, simplistic forms of innovation. Rather than a moonshot, they are looking to simply move the yardsticks just a little.

Plant vs stone

Jade is both a plant and a stone. A jade plant is a solid, semi-broad leafed plant that is well suited to dry climates and a variety of light situations, making it a great houseplant. It’s adaptive, easily transplantable and hearty. Jade, as a stone, is relatively soft and while it is also adaptable, once carved into a shape, it’s no longer going to change.

The jade / jaded metaphor is designed to consider the ways in which we approach developing our innovation potential. A jade plant is still firm, but flexible. It grows and changes over time, but isn’t as free flowing as others. The jade plant offers a useful metaphor for ensuring that lessons learned from past actions inform future strategy, but not to the point where the fear of risk calcifies the organization into a static state, unable to change.

A plant exists largely because it has a steady stream of nutrients, water, sunlight and a reasonable stability of growing conditions, yet conditions that can change and will change over time. This consistency as well as requisite variety (in systems terms) is what keeps a plant alive and thriving. The same is true for an organization. Ongoing, steady innovation, consistency over time and the occasional change in conditions to keep things on their toes (and used to adaptation) are all a part of what makes an organization or individual innovative. Build in a regular practice, become a mindful organization (or practitioner) and consider changes in the way you speak about innovation to yourself and others.

Bruce Lee would advocate that his students become like water. Innovators? They should become more like plants for that water.

Image Credit: Jade Plant by Andrew Rivett used under Creative Commons License. Thanks for sharing Andrew!

art & designcomplexityinnovationsocial innovationsystems science

Seeking simplicity among complexity? Go Dutch!

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In a world awash in content and the resulting complexity that comes when it all intersects the viable options for how to manage it remain few. The Dutch De Stijl art and design movement might offer some lessons on dealing with complexity that we can apply beyond products to creating beautiful, functional, and effective services, settings and policy options.

Are you informed about the world? Chances are the answer to that question is both no and yes. There’s no question that you’re informed, the question might be more on what you’re informed about, to what extent, whether that’s of your interest (and relevance and need) and whether it’s an accurate (and useful) depiction of the world around you. That’s a much more complicated set of questions with a troubling set of answers. But one group (the Dutch) may have found some solutions… but we’ll get to that in a moment.

First let’s look at what we’re up against: data streams of distraction.

Data streams of distraction

Consider the many information sources we’re presented with daily.

Consider mine in no particular order, starting with digital : Email (multiple accounts), two course management portals, Instagram, Twitter (two accounts), LinkedIn, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Whats App, comments on my website or Facebook company page, about 2 dozen apps (on my iPhone and iPad), myriad websites I visit, text messages and, oh yes, occasionally the phone will ring. Next, there’s physical magazines, books, radio or music streams and television, too. Looking out my window I see cranes and buildings and billboards from my downtown loft apartment (and hear birds singing, above it all).

I also encounter real-life human beings, too and they have things to share and more information for me. Funny, that.

This is based on what I choose to look at (even if some choices are rather constrained, such as knowing there is only one way to reach someone and that means engaging with a particular media form I intensely dislike — I’m talking about you, Facebook). Travelling through my day, others will approach and engage, I’ll encounter new things that present themselves and will be handed, shown, flashed or spoken to plenty of other information. The volume of information keeps growing with every encounter.

Then there’s the information stored in memory, the remnants of all of those other days, experiences, and a lifetime of events and information.

This will all happen in real-time, refer to present situations, the past, many possible futures, contain truths, lies, myths and be incomplete in parts all over. It is, in short, a perfect representation of complexity. And it’s causing us a lot of problems.

Information overload

The term ‘information(al) overload’ has been coined to describe the exposure to too much information or data. Information overload and the design problems that information abundance provides has contributed to . Engineers, the builders of much of our critical infrastructure (including, ironically, information technology), know this firsthand and are growing in their concern over how they see that influencing their work. In 2012 the IEEE published a book (PDF) that looked deeply at the role of information overload where the authors note that information overload is not just when people seek new information, but when it information searches for them. The authors argue that:

Information overload “places knowledge workers and managers worldwide in a chronic state of mental overload. It exacts a massive toll on employee productivity and causes significant personal harm, while organizations ultimately pay the price with extensive financial loss”

Annual Reviews, an academic publisher of multidisciplinary research, was motivated to write a piece on information overload in their industry (PDF), noting the present problem is partly one of removing intermediaries:

“…the removal of the intermediary (typically the librarian, but sometimes the publisher) from the information seeking chain…means we are all librarians now, and have to behave like them—constantly reviewing and validating data.”

That takes a lot of work. Both of these works are from 2011-2012 and since then the continued expansion of broadband and mobile technologies, facilitated by cameras and cheaper access to technology, has only added to the amount of information available. The content generation capacity of the public has increased, the consequences are no different, and the solutions fewer.

Perversely, one of the strategies we use to battle overload is to throw more content at the problem as Tom Fishburne shows in this cartoon. We create greater complexity by adding more complexity.  This is the tension. We want to add more information to clarify, rather than strip it away, and end up doing the opposite.

Yet, there may be hope and it is rooted in pragmatism and a desire for beauty: the Dutch design movement, De Stijl.

Designing away complexity: going Dutch

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To the untrained eye (which, until a few weeks ago, was mine until I met Corrie van Walraven) the image above would suggest a modern styled home built in the last 20 or 30 years.  Rietveld Schröder House, pictured, was actually built in 1924 and reflects a Dutch design ethos that’s continued through to today of keeping things clean, organized, efficient, flexible, and beautiful.

By many standards the Netherlands has shown itself to be an expert in complexity. Holland is among the most densely populated countries in the world, manages to grow food, survive and thrive in a physical environment that shouldn’t even exist (it is, after all , situated mostly under water). They’ve become masters of adaptation, because they’ve had to be. Dutch design reflects much of this and De Stijl is a perfect example.

Though Dutch design has had many facets and movements De Stijl remains popular partly because of it’s ability to create simplicity amid complexity while creating beauty. Beauty in a designed artifact means it has an evident function, but also elicits a positive aesthetic experience. As Steven de Groot’s research has shown, beauty does not only have intrinsically attractive qualities, but its presence in organizations can lead to higher productivity, employee retention and satisfaction, and overall institutional effectiveness.

Beauty provides an experience of positivity, generally free from confusion, and often clarity. It is lack of clarity and the presence of confusion that is what complexity often brings. Anything that can increase the first and reduce the second while remaining adaptive to the realities of complexity (e.g., information seeking you out) and the data stream is something worth paying attention to; that’s where De Stijl and examples like the Rietveld Schröder House provide guidance.

The house, pictured above, was designed to create a fluid, adaptive space that could configure to a variety of situations and evolve over time. It deals with the amount of content — people, furniture — adaptively, within the boundaries of its walls, in ways that preserve form and function, yet do not get bound too tightly to any particular model. Another distinction is that it is designed to provide the least distinction between the indoor and outdoor spaces. Thus, the design feels somewhat less visible through its simplicity.

Coherence within boundaries

What the De Stijl movement does well is integrate complex ideas together, beautifully, and subscribing to a design philosophy that mirrors Dieter Rams’ belief that we should design as little as possible. De Stijl is about creating coherence – beneficial coherence in complexity terms — within boundaries. It’s work doesn’t seek to integrate the outside and inside (indeed, the criticism of the Rietveld Schröder House is that it doesn’t integrate well within the neighbourhood), but it does exceptionally well within the boundaries of its walls.

What we can take from this is the emphasis on internal coherence within our informational and organizational spaces, because those are the areas we can place boundaries. Systems thinking is all about boundary setting otherwise the focus becomes incoherent. This means being deliberate about where we set up our personal boundaries, professional boundaries and learning boundaries, but in keeping with De Stijl, keeping those flexible and adaptive and always moving, yet in a system that strives for coherence. One of the reasons information overload happens is because we have too much to create coherence with and because we’ve lost what our intention was with the information in the first place.

So a takeaway is this: be intentional about what you’re looking for and what you use. Be mindful of the things that give you coherence in your work and life and create a learning space where you can adapt. Strategy and purpose can help determine this — connect to this. Use the principles of Dutch design through De Stijl to design the conditions that support meaning making.

And if you want a great example in the personal realm, check out another creative thinker with Dutch lineage, Leisse Wilcox, on how self-love through better personal, environmental and social design (my word, not hers) can make you a happier person. That might be the best design you can create of them all.

Acknowledgements: A big thank you to Corrie van Walraven for sharing with me a piece on the De Stijl movement that inspired this post. Corrie’s a great representative of how wonderful the Dutch are and her generosity of spirit and great job as a host is greatly appreciated.

Image Credits: Author and Rietveld Schröder House by frm_tokyo used under Creative Commons License via Flickr.

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Foreseeing the Unpossible

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Change may be the only constant and, beyond wet babies, few of us welcome it. Foresight is about looking ahead to what change(s) might be coming to help us prepare, but that doesn’t help much if we don’t know where we are right now. 

Last night I had a wonderful conversation with some foresighting peers, all fellow alumni from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program at OCADU. We were coming together to talk about what we, as ones with training in the foresight theories, methods and tools that help people consider possible futures, can do to help and heal the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the social collisions that have come with it.

Trump’s election was an example of where the foresight community — like pretty much every other scholarly field — failed. Few, if any, saw it coming. No matter your slant on the media coverage, 18 months ago no one was talking about the Trump presidency in serious terms – hardly even Donald Trump, himself.

Even after securing the Republican nomination his candidacy was seen as taking on the impossible. Now, it’s the unpossible.

Today we have someone going on a campaign-style crusade against his opponents after he’s won the election. It’s as if the presidential outcome was never decided. No one saw that coming, either.

Or Brexit.

Or…you get the picture. There are a lot of things that have been missed by very smart people with powerful tools, theories and resources and it’s happening a lot.

This is less about bad foresight as much as it is a lack of insight into the present day and the present moment and the human beings who inhabit it. It might be time to bring psychology into foresight and that begins with understanding how people live their lives day-to-day and what they think, feel, pay attention to, and gravitate to (and away from).

Putting difference in context

To see the unpossible we need to start going deeper into the heart of human life.

While many laud the accomplishments of the maverick, the inspired trailblazer, or the wonders of diversity, the truth is that we are wired more tightly to sameness than difference. (Like it or not). Difference and change are two things we humans don’t have innate attraction to at a macro level, yet it is the hallmark feature of the cosmopolitan, modern (and certainly Western) world. Complexity is about diversity, change, instability, and non-linearity — the very things we humans have trouble with and yet we keep making systems that are ever-more complex making for a paradox of epic proportions.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of difference in-the-world. Canada is taking in over 35,000 refugees and has a commitment to maintain a slightly reduced level of refugees (from all over the world) for the foreseeable future. This pales in comparison to what other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey have taken in, but shames its larger neighbour to the south.

These new citizens bring new ideas, energy, culture to a country that has more than enough space, plenty of relative wealth and a population who are willing and able to help. Syrians (like so many refugees) have experienced  horrors and more human suffering than anyone should have to endure.

While these new Canadians are contributors, they also require resources to help them settle. For many, it will be some time before they integrate into Canadian life enough that they no longer require government or charitable assistance. In the meantime, this group is hungry to work, to study and to create a life for themselves in their adopted home. The problem comes when there are others already here who also want to work, study and create a life for themselves and can’t do it to the levels they want and who might see the scarce resources being further reduced by these newcomers.

If I am a Canadian without work, how happy should I be that we are committing to providing 35,000+ people who are also looking for work with a place in my country? If I’m waiting for healthcare treatment, how is this going to affect me? How might I feel when I see that these newcomers get food, shelter, community support, job training and programs aimed at supporting them to integrate when I don’t believe I can get anything like that and I’ve been here my whole life? When has the Prime Minister ever come to welcome me to anything?  If I was a refugee from another place just a year or two earlier, why didn’t I get this treatment when I arrived?

These aren’t just Canadian questions. They are being asked in Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, England, Jordan, Sweden and anywhere there is a perception of scarcity of resources (which is pretty much everywhere).

This is but one example. The humanitarian impulse that many people feel when looking to help those in need is why Canada and so many nations around the world have stepped up and taken in these Syrian ‘strangers’ as their new friends, neighbours and family with open arms. It’s heartwarming and represents some of the better angels of our nature. Yet, this doesn’t make the concerns that someone who is already settled here any less legitimate. This is that part of the equation that is easy to miss or dismiss when we see resistance to change or opposition to these kind of initiatives.

The psychology of difference

For those who identify as a progressive or liberal, opposition to change, diversity and global integration is often labeled as ‘small-minded’ at the least, racist at the worst. Certainly there are elements of that which can reside within what might be considered ‘conservative’ movements, yet it’s unfair to use these labels to describe an entire worldview. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented on the pull between globalist and nationalist thinking, pointing to the way worldviews about change and stability help us understand the rise of Donald Trump and other radical candidates. His analysis an application of moral psychology provides what may be the most powerful explanation of why we are seeing the ‘unpossible’ become possible.

As a caricature for illustration, liberals are biased to see positives in change while conservatives are biased toward promotion of stability. When change is constant and stability is comforting, this dichotomy is not easily resolved, if at all.

Psychology can help us in other ways when looking to the present and future of our world. One is to consider the cognitive biases that we hold when we bring a worldview that sees change and stability, globalism and nationalism, unity and diversity in everyday life.

One bias or mode of thought is attribution theory— taking one thing and ascribing qualities from it to another. In the case of a Trumpist United States that positions difference — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, other countries’ trade policies — as a threat we can find examples of how this thinking plays out. It might be easy to look at what is the most obvious — people who are new, dress differently, speak differently, believe different things, and look different — as the culprit. After all, when things were good — when “America was Great” — these people weren’t here and this situation didn’t exist. Simple cause and effect, right?

Of course, we know that the ‘good old days’ were rarely ever as good as we make them out to be. This is because of a collection of other cognitive phenomena.

Hindsight bias is a way of confirming present feelings and thoughts based on seeing the past through a distorted lens that allows us to say things like “I knew it all along”. Nostalgia is a form of hindsight and allows people to reflect back on positive feelings and experiences in life, but also to connect to simplicity, which is why we remember simple, but strong feelings (love, fear, conviviality) but lose the details of just what was said or the specifics of an encounter. It’s the feelings that matter most.

A quote attributed to Toni Morrison is particularly apt here:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Finally, confirmation bias takes these thoughts and reformulates them into the present, which is a way of saying that we fit our memories and thoughts from the past to fit our current belief system.

Understanding time and change

Change is always relative. The parable of the frog in the boiling pot is a good one to illustrate this. We might not perceive the water getting too hot until it’s too late because change is so persistent, yet gradual. The distresses we find in modern life are the ones that often promote loneliness, disconnection and separation from the natural world. These are all things – communion, connection, engagement with nature — that promote wellbeing and comfort.

Difference can be a source of inspiration, new ideas and innovation, but it can also be a source of distress because of this perceived separation from the stable. When I’ve had traditions, practices and a way of living that has provided comfort for me my whole life and, in a time when I need comfort more than ever, am having trouble seeing those things that once brought me comfort in everyday life, how am I going to feel about difference? To what might I attribute this difference, this change to? The answer sometimes comes in the form of racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, and ethnic nationalism.

Trump and others are capitalizing on the fog that comes with memory and our self-selection and editing of history in our minds. What we long for are those feelings associated from earlier times and those feelings are connected to the simplicity of the practice (as we construct it in our memory). When you recall your day to a friend or loved one you summarize: that’s how memory works for you. You don’t speak of the day in terms of how your brain actually functions moment-to-moment with the gamut of feelings, thoughts, memories you have at any one time because you’d sound like a lunatic with all the chatter, contradiction and stream-of-consciousness going on. That’s your memory at work in bringing clarity to the chaos of a waking moment.

The distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction with all of this change is reasonable and legitimate. The manifestation of those feelings into hatred is not. Add in our bias toward in-groups — however we personally define it — and the reaction that we are seeing isn’t surprising at all. We are forward-oriented beings, we see things moving ahead and when social or economic situations force us backward by having less — friends, social engagements, money, buying power, security, stability — we don’t handle it lightly.

Time plays many tricks with our mind whether we view it as being in abundance, scarcity or even relate to it at all in the moment.

Light on our shadow

Add in another feature that we often overlook: our darker, shadow side. Jung spoke about the importance of the shadow and using it to understand the light. We all have a shadow, that darker side of our nature that emerges in times of stress or when we least expect it.

The human shadow is that part of the self that revels — even momentarily — on revenge**. How often have we, in fleeting moments (or even longer), wished ill-will on someone else? That person that cuts us off on the way to work; the clueless person who stops at the top of the escalator in a busy shopping plaza; your cousin who always takes more than his share at family dinners; queue jumpers; the telemarketer who interrupts your quiet night at home to sell you something; the sports fan who cheers for your team’s rival and revels in your team’s defeat; the person that votes for the candidate who’s not yours.

Why are revenge movies so appealing to so many? The Revenant wouldn’t be much of a story (although a glorious testament to the Alberta mountain landscape, which is well worth seeing on its own) if we didn’t, at some level, relate to the characters’ desire for revenge. It feels good. And it makes many of us recoil in horror and deny it when we consider it as part of us.

I experience this all the time and I’m not proud of that. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t confessed (when pressed) that they feel the same way. It’s part of being a human being.

Seeing the unpossible is about seeing ourselves as humans, not just fellow citizens who we think ought to mirror our own personal ideals. Humans get scared of change, they are overwhelmed with information, have few tools at their disposal and even less time and energy to apply those tools, and they are willing to seek comfort in anything that holds the promise of making life simpler.

If the present and future will be shaped by humans, then we need to add our humanity, including the ugly parts of it, into the mix. Consider that when you make your predictions, generate your models and envision the world ahead and also ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a little darker in your outlook on life right now.

Only by seeing us as humans can we imagine what seems unpossible as possible.

** A fun way to soften the harshness of thoughts of revenge on others is provided by the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.

complexityevaluationjournalismpsychologystrategic foresight

Unpossible

Yinka's Ship

‘Post-truth’ was named the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. No fitting word reflects the strangeness of 2016 with the exception of unpossible, a word I made up and in a post-truth world might as well be as legitimate as many of the arguments being made about the most important things of the day, which is why we need to rethink how and what we pay attention to. 

When I was a little kid I was absolutely fascinated by ships in bottles (and still am). To me this was the embodiment of the impossible made possible. I’ve been shown how its done, read about it and still can’t really believe it despite seeing many ships in bottles over my lifetime. Gothic boxwood prayer beads are in the same category: they are both of the world and otherworldly at the same time. Brilliant stuff.

These are creations of human ingenuity, craft, patience and beauty.

What we have started to see in the social world are acts that are equally implausible to comprehend, yet lack all of these qualities but share one feature: creativity.

It may be time to examine what creativity means and what its impacts are because what might have been harmless chatter is now becoming big business and its transforming our world in ways we never could imagine and ways we might not really want.

In short: we are creating the unpossible.

Truthiness of fiction

Writing in Salon, Erin Keane reminds us that it was ten years ago that the concept of ‘truthiness’ was first floated out by Stephen Colbert and went on to become the 2006 Word of the Year by Mirriam-Webster. Keane reflects on the genesis of the word and how it articulated how a feeling of something being true could override the availability of evidence to support its existence without necessarily creating an entirely new reality.

With truthiness, though, we still recognized that truth exists, just that it could be overridden and bent to serve our own emotional purposes.

In a truthy world the absence of clear evidence didn’t mean that something didn’t exist if our feelings suggested that it might. Hence, we had an assault of Iraq and search for weapons of mass destruction based on a feeling that someone like Saddam Hussein would want to deploy them if he had them (which might have been true, but he didn’t have them and there was no evidence to suggest he did so it wasn’t true).

Now, those logical or hypothetical — if unproven — suppositions matter less. We’ve taken out ‘facts’ from the middle of the equation separating truth from fantasy.

In the US election, ‘fake news’ sites outperformed ‘not-fake news’ sites. In other words: those peddling fictions about the world drew more attention than those who sought to share what actually happened in the world. Except, what also actually happened was that people were reading, maybe believing, but certainly sharing and endorsing these made up stories, which were once referred to by names such as ‘lies’, ‘propaganda’ and ‘slander’. Now, it’s called reporting in a post-truth environment.

When the head of a news organization that promotes people who believe there ought to be a cap on women and girls in science and attacks citizen movements focused on social justice like Black Lives Matter is promoted to the role of chief strategist for the White House to serve as a representative of the people in strategy, that is post-truth at work. **

Tardigrade amnesia

The Tardigrade is perhaps the most remarkable animal on the planet. They can survive in temperatures close to absolute zero and over 150 degrees centigrade. If resilience had a mascot, it would be the tardigrade (pictured below — with credit to Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden).

waterbear

While the effect of an election on policies and practices from healthcare, environmental protection, human rights, and safety and security may be wide-reaching and last beyond the term of office for most politicians the response can’t simply be to ‘toughen up’ and accept what’s being done, even if it is done under the banner of electoral legitimacy. Resilience is not about just absorbing shocks, but also about adapting to prevent the shocks from coming, to lessen their intensity, and also about systems change wherever possible.

The tardigrade is an expert on resiliency. It is as if it decided that, rather than plan for the best-case scenario, it figured out what the worst case would be and developed itself for that context first. Even if the tardigrade doesn’t encounter absolute zero temperatures that much in the world, it is ready for it.

Resiliency in social systems requires the same thinking.

In the US election and Brexit vote we saw politicians, pollsters and the media all get it wrong: they didn’t assess the mood and mindset of voters accurately. More importantly, voters may not have voted for what they are getting, but against what they got. In that case, what they ‘got'(i.e., had) was a sense of falling behind, perceived unfairness, absence of connection between their social world and the one talked about on TV or in government, and isolation from the economy, society and a world they thought they knew and were promised — something that built up over decades.

The voters wanted something different than what they had, but they may not have understood what they might get from this difference.

Foresight, in hindsight

Strategic foresight is a discipline that combines creative thinking, data, and planning together. It’s a burgeoning field of practice-based inquiry that offers an opportunity to explore various hypotheses about possible futures. We cannot reliably predict the future, particularly in complex systems, however it is possible to anticipate events based on trends, forecasts and signals that emerge from the data we have about the past and present when applied to the planning for the future.

Strategic foresight is a relatively young discipline, yet it holds much promise in aiding our ability to be resilient in the face of adversity and guide our actions to prevent problems and amplify those factors that can generate solutions. The result are ‘evidence-informed imaginations’ like the one that my colleague Peg Lahn and I did on the future of the neighbourhood in a growing city like Toronto, Canada. Ahead of legislation curbing the way high-rise building were built, we anticipated massive problems for Toronto’s high-rise condominiums based on the data we gathered and scenarios we developed. Falling glass was largely an ‘isolated’ incident 5 years ago and soon became a massive problem across the city and will continue to plague these buildings that will likely need to be completely ‘re-skinned’ in less than 20 years due to their reliance on poor design choices based on the city’s climate.

Our work bucked the trend toward optimism in condo development toward evidence-informed pessimism. Neither optimism or pessimism are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, rather what’s key is creating the kind of storyline that fits evidence, emotion and provides a narrative for what might happen. In doing so, a strategic plan can develop the kind of performance measures and monitoring and evaluation plans that help detect whether a particular scenario is starting to play out in the world. If so, it’s possible to correct things before they get problematic.

Strategic foresight combined with resiliency and systems thinking can be a way to envision the impossible as possible to prevent what becomes unpossible.

Consider what systems you’re working in and ask yourself if you’re seeing all (or many of) the pertinent possibilities and how they might play out. This is where fiction can be an asset, not a symptom, related to a larger issue. If you want some initial foresight into the current state of affairs in Western politics — from Le Pen in France, Farage in the UK,  Hofer in Austria, Wilders in the Netherlands, Trump in the United States, Kellie Leitch in Canada — dive into Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 classic “It Can’t Happen Here” .

It can.

The unpossible can only happen if we collectively create it.

Image credit: Yinka’s ship by Garry Knight used under Creative Commons License. Garry’s work is amazing and worth checking out. Thanks for sharing your art with the world!

** I struggled with the notion of even linking to this content, but also feel that I’m contributing to an echo chamber if those views aren’t seen and experienced, even if it’s just a small dose.

If we are to address truths — hard ones, complicated ones, ugly ones — we need to speak with truth and not pretend these voices aren’t there or comment on them if we are unwilling to expose ourselves to some of it in its original form and not solely filtered through other perspectives. One of the issues we face is that too often we (humans) speak about groups we know nothing about from any source that came from that perspective.